Gibson’s “Agency”: some thoughts

Last week, when my Mac’s battery went to shit for the third time in the four years I’ve had it (there’s a design flaw where this model eats batteries, it’s pretty annoying), I had an enforced vacation. I spent it reading.

One of the books I read was William Gibson’s latest, “Agency”. Whose title turned out to be profoundly ironic, as that is exactly what the main character, Verity, lacks. The first decision Verity makes in this book – to take a job with a company trying to commercialize a military AI – is pretty much the last one she makes; once she starts testing this AI, it spawns a vast web of sub-programs that go off hunting information and doing stuff for her. The front end of the AI doesn’t even know what her agents are doing; she just suddenly knows that, hey, this deal is about to happen if she tells Verity to go sit in a specific place in a coffee shop and trade a bag full of an absurd amount of cash to a guy with a mysterious case. Possibly the AI doesn’t have much agency in this story either.

Soon, the AI is telling Verity to start running because the company who she’s working for are… vaguely bad or something? I don’t recall much about consequences, just that Verity’s lack of agency becomes even more profound as she’s handed off from one person working for an agent of the AI to another. And then she gets connected with a set of people working for bored rich assholes in an alternate future, whose hobby is spawning and manipulating what they call “stubs”: timelines branching off from their past. It turns out that these rich alternate-future assholes have determined that there is a very high chance this stub is about to erupt in nuclear war, and that Verity’s AI is the best chance to stop this. The rich future assholes have super-powerful computers that make it easy for them to analyze the stubs they create and manipulate them; maybe they’re the only ones who have any agency at all in this book.

And then the AI is “destroyed” (with a lot of hints that it’ll come back) and it becomes even more of a sequence of disconnected events, without any characters Gibson’s spent time persuading you to care about. Every now and then someone mentions the looming nuclear war. There’s some action scenes. Verity continues to be a passive viewpoint character; the last part of the book (I would call it a “climax” but that implies it was exciting) sees her dressed up as a mannequin who’s lifted up a tall building by drones hauling a hammock, as part of what appears to be An Art Installation. She’s repeatedly reminded to not move at all lest this blow her cover. And really this sums up her role for the entire book – just do what everyone tells you to, as part of their intricate plans, which are only vaguely hinted at.

And of course in the last few chapters the AI reassembles herself from data carried by her agents, and I guess nuclear war is averted, and also I guess the company that wants the AI back is defeated, but honestly after about four hundred pages of a sprawling cast of vaguely-sketched characters all excitedly not really doing anything about any of those things I really was just glad to be finished with the book.

Arguably this is an eminently realistic depiction of being in the hands of a hypercompetent networked AI – sort of a longer version of Sterling’s short story Maneki Neko – but it’s the exact opposite of exciting, in a way that reminds of of Niven’s complaint that there was a point in his future history of “Known Space” where it was just impossible to write an interesting story, because all of humanity had the genes for the psychic power of “Very Very Lucky”. There are some interesting moments and images throughout the book but none of them ever really felt like anything to worry about, because the AI returning felt absolutely inevitable.

It’s not like most of Gibson’s books really come to a satisfying conclusion. But at least usually his characters have things they want, that they get to make decisions about how to acquire. Verity spends this whole book just having things happen to her and around her and I just kinda quit caring after a while, and that’s probably a valuable thing to remember about story construction.

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